Pakistan is like a net, a collection of holes, held together by a string; the string of self interest.
Declan Walsh is a highly acclaimed Irish journalist who spent nine years in Pakistan as the New York Times’ Pakistan Bureau Chief and Guardian’s correspondent. He travelled extensively, made many friends and had contacts in all the right places. Yet surprisingly, The Nine Lives of Pakistan begins with a reference to “farishtay’” or angels (which is a euphemism for the ISI), and his being given barely 72 hours to leave Pakistan. The book takes us through the fascinating period from 2004 to 2013 he spent in Pakistan and is told through the lives of nine extraordinary and diverse people. In following their lives we are taken on a guided tour by the author through the varied settings of Pakistan—be it the drawing rooms of Lahore, the streets of Karachi, the lawless frontiers of Waziristan and tribal areas of Balochistan and of course the power centres of the garrison city of Rawalpindi and capital Islamabad. What is common are the omnipresent angels watching over everything.
The title is unusual, almost referring to a cat with nine lives. Eight of his nine characters are dead, most having met violent ends. The one who is still alive, lives abroad, his true identity hidden. The political, religious, ethnic and tribal fault lines in the nation are brought to the fore through the tales of these unusual people, all but one of whom is a woman. A country on the brink of anarchy; political chaos, extremism, fundamentalism, discrimination, and with regressive forces at work, and yet paradoxically, there is honour, bravery and idealism as seen through the work of a human rights activist; tribal chieftains for whom honour is of paramount importance, and a governor who speaks up for the rights of the minorities.
The book is full of paradoxes. Who can imagine a highly educated, aristocratic Baloch chieftain, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, with his love for poetry and who educates his people by asking them to translate classical writers, dispensing justice by forcing his subjects to walk over hot coal? Or the picture of Bugti at the mouth of his cave, on the run, living a spartan life but with a stack of Economists on an old chest that served as a desk, reciting Donne. (Four months later he was killed by the Pakistani army). But as is written in the War of the Flea, the classical study on guerilla warfare, “the flea bites the dog all over, and so he lashes out. But the flea is elsewhere. The dog cannot shake him off.”
The protagonists through whose prism we feel the pulse of the complex construct of the state include Asma Jahangir, a crusading human rights activist. The wife of a wealthy industrialist, she stood up for her principles and fought for causes involving the most marginalized sections of society and never hesitated from publicly confronting the powerful military. “She passionately believed that the Deep State was responsible for Pakistan’s greatest woes. It rigged elections, intimidated or bought off journalists, made bad laws, and broke good ones, and of course relentlessly instrumentalised Islam by coddling violent extremists—all in service of its ultimate grip maintaining its grip on power.”
Another is Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, one of the “flashiest entrepreneurs”, a business tycoon turned politician who relished the good life and never hesitated to flaunt it, gunned down by his own security guard. He was thriving until he took up the cause of a poor Christian woman being targeted for blasphemy. A man of unusual political convictions, “who identified with a vision of a free and tolerant society”—but did such a place ever exist in Pakistan? “After his death the family struggled to find a cleric to lead the prayers, the brave man who stepped forward would later be forced to flee the country.”
Kamal Khan is a Pashtun politician, lawyer, landlord, and chieftain, whose campaign trail we share, a rough ride with bullets flying overhead, where you see more guns than women and are witness to the tribal code of conduct. A man for whom, “customs and traditions are more holy than the law of my country”. He defies the Taliban, and when forced to meet Baitullah Mehsud, it ends in a debate between two visions of the Frontier; Kamal representing the old ways and Mehsud the new order that justifies its violence under Sharia law. A year later a Taliban militant drove a truck laden with explosives into a crowd witnessing a volleyball match, killing 97 of Kamal’s tribesmen. “Pashtuns are Pashtuns.”
Colonel Imam was a retired ISI officer, who had trained Mullah Omar amongst others, and was known as his consigliore. Highly radicalised, imbibing the jihadi ideology, he was a true believer. He was now held hostage in the wilds of Waziristan (captured while escorting a British film maker), by the very monsters he had helped create who demanded the release of 159 imprisoned Taliban terrorists for his release including men who had committed heinous crimes. In an unsophisticated speech, Hakimullah Mehsud blamed him, and others of his ilk, for betraying the Mujahideen by not turning Pakistan into an Islamic state before the fighters pulled the trigger. “Years of playing different sides off against each other had finally come to haunt him, his professed love for jihad now draining into the cold mountain soil.”
Written in the aftermath of his abrupt deportation, the book concludes with Walsh meeting one of the “angels” that formed part of his surveillance team during his visit to Quetta. Living under an assumed name in Europe, the “angel” provides him with a view of the ISI’s inner workings and the extent to which they go to keep tabs on outsiders. Founded by an Australian General, William Cawthorn, the ISI is all powerful. Though often collaborating with CIA, a chasm of mistrust lies between the two agencies. They believed in crushing ethnic movements ruthlessly, “there could be no negotiation”. What emerges is a portrait of an agency afflicted by the same bungling and corruption as the rest of the state with a poor record for analysis, viewing “everything through predetermined ideological prisms”.
Pakistan, as he tells us, is like a net, a collection of holes, held together by a string; the string of self interest. The ubiquitous hand of the “farishtays” and their controllers dominates its narrative. As another observer stated, even after many years of partition, it still remains as it originally was; at the beginning. After reading the book, it appears that it is unlikely that there will be a new beginning; the fauj, feudals, both landlords and industrialists, and the fundamentalists will continue to remain its holy trinity and regressive forces will keep pulling it back.
The narrative of these nine lives inter woven with the events of their times and historical context provides a unique and valuable perspective into the politics, culture, aspirations and incongruities of a nation perpetually at odds with itself. It also is clear that power is not based solely on electoral power but also rooted in hereditary clan based tribal and feudal kinship groups. The sense and feel of this turbulent period is brought to life. “Depending on whom you asked, Islam or the Army were the glue supposed to be holding the place together. Yet both in their own right were tearing it apart”. Jinnah’s dream for the land of the pure had been sacrificed.
The book takes you on a fascinating journey into remote corners of Pakistan, plunges you into crowds and celebrations, takes you into stately drawing rooms and introduces the reader to a wide variety of people including a Parsee brewer, one of the country’s biggest taxpayers who is thriving in a country which has prohibition. A Hindu shopkeeper in a remote town who is given protection by the local Baloch chieftain, or the map of Pakistan in bright bold colours, sold in bookshops with the fine print below: “boundaries and other information may not be authentic”. And a rich industrialist supplying cocaine to a politician friend, as a payout to “fix” the system—“sifarish was the magic carpet”.
What you are not exposed to is the Army or to Kashmir, that’s probably where the “line of control” for foreign journalists is drawn. The book a remarkable close-up of a fractured country, narrated with an eye for detail and is a must read for those who are keen on observing the undercurrents and complexities that exist in our neighbourhood.
In the end, as Walsh says in the beginning of his book; “It seems to boil down to one hard truth, the military always wins. When the ISI comes to the door, the illusion of a democratic state melts away.” There is no “magic realism here, just realism”.
Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh, VSM (Retd) is an Army veteran.